Sunday, 24 February 2008

Hwurl, hwawrl, wurl, wawrl

I have never been sure how to pronounce whorl; dictionaries give several variations but do not make clear which are the acceptable ones and which would cause contemptuous laughter if I used any of them in conversation with better-educated people.

Happily, it has not been difficult to avoid using it since I have rarely found myself participating in discussions about spinning machines, ethmoidal crests, the verticil of a flower, the convolutions of a spiral shell, fingerprints, or the action of drawing up with a pulley. The word has been used in connection with these things since 1440, but I have been able to lead a fairly full life without the need to use it in any context.

There is of course no problem when writing it, so I do not risk embarrassment by passing on the information that Jalebi is an Indian sweet consisting of a slightly fermented batter forced through a nozzle into hot clarified butter so that it forms loops or whorls. When these have set they are lifted out of the fat and dropped into hot syrup scented with saffron and rosewater, then drained and served.

Mere teeth-rotting delight to us, but in the Middle East this confection has interesting poetic associations and is mentioned in the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. There is a poem in which a man describes how he fashioned a chain from the whorls and hung it around the neck of his beloved, and put rings of it on her ears. Very romantic, and of course he would be well placed for a nibble.

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